Sparks sure fly when the premodern world of religious piety and the postmodern world of Monty Python collide. Middle Eastern Muslims have demonstrated, threatened, boycotted and burned in their fury over European newspapers republishing months-old distasteful cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Stunned, European diplomats have tried in vain to explain to Arab ambassadors that, in the West, governments neither own nor muzzle an often unwise and tasteless press. Hurt feelings and much worse are the price we are supposed to pay for free expression so central to consensual government. Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews or Muslims in secular democracies simply don't burn foreign embassies when their faith is impugned in the free press.
Nor did the offended wish to hear that the intent of the cartoons, originally published in September by a Danish newspaper, was to ridicule extremists who use religion to justify terrorism and the killing of civilians, rather than gratuitously to insult Islam.
We are seeing an escalating clash of civilizations against a tense backdrop of the Iranian government's call for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth, the election of Hamas terrorists in the Palestinian territories, and Western efforts to protect the new democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq from jihadist bombers.
There is a great asymmetry in all this. Western notions of cultural tolerance and liberality are the benchmarks Muslims employ to condemn insensitive European journalism. Meanwhile, the Islamic Middle East is given a pass, as anti-Semitic state-run papers there daily portray Jews grotesquely.
As the controversy heated up, the word globalization came up a lot, with many banally noting that "we are all interconnected now" and that what a small newspaper prints in a small country like Denmark can affect the entire world. But that is only half-true.
Globalization is, in fact, mostly a one-way process. Western technology, democracy, freedom, capitalism and popular culture continue to infect the non-West. Once there, they often bulldoze time-honored culture. That resulting clash leads to a radical divergence of perceptions. The cocky West assumes non-Westerners wish to emulate it. They often do, but also soon resent deeply their newfound dependence and appetites for what is often antithetical to traditional life.
Europeans and Americans rarely demonstrate when Jesus, the pope or the Jewish faith is lampooned abroad. In contrast, the insecure and touchy Middle East is hypersensitive about any affront to its religion or honor. Thus the mere possession of a Bible is felonious in Saudi Arabia, while mosques typically operate without scrutiny in once-Christian Europe.
There is also an expectation that Westerners, purportedly soft and decadent, will apologize for the excesses of their culture, while Muslims abroad need not for the extremism of an Iranian president promising another genocide or Osama bin Laden's periodic vow to murder thousands more Americans.
Indeed, a number of sadly misguided Westerners most prominently Bill Clinton have condemned the published cartoons, missing the issue entirely and so sending exactly the wrong message: A private Western newspaper can crassly editorialize and lampoon as it likes. If it couldn't, or if it censored itself from doing so out of fear, then there would simply no longer be a West as we know it. That's why papers across Europe, from Spain to Poland, have republished the cartoons and faced the consequences.
After the London and Madrid bombings, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the French riots and the failed European efforts to reason with the Iranian theocrats, Europe has had it with Islamic extremism. French President Jacques Chirac now openly talks about resorting to nuclear weapons against the state sponsors of terrorism. A new government in Germany compares the Iranian theocracy to Hitler. Muslim Turkey will probably not join the European Union, and Hamas may well lose its EU handouts.
And so now, in refusing to accept Muslim-imposed censorship, brave little countries like Demark and Holland are saying enough is enough and waiting, perhaps in vain, for a word of support from America or Britain.
Of course, in a logical world, most irreverent Westerners would not much worry whether a particular tactless newspaper provoked offense far abroad, despite the protestations of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Gulf royals. But oil dependency, Middle Eastern petrodollar surpluses, jihadist terrorism and fear of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorist-sponsoring regimes have, in varying ways, held too many in the West psychologically hostage.
But even more disturbing than such overt material constraints, the West is also increasingly unwilling to defend, or even to articulate, its own unique values, in fear of seeming hurtful and judgmental. In this latest incident, Europeans are expected to show remorse not so much for their bad taste as for their very way of life.